If you are thinking of getting some goats, which breed should you choose? Anke Sieker outlines the choices

Goats often get a bad press from the general public, being portrayed as escapologists, naughty and eating everything off your washing line. But you really like them and would love to have some on your holding? First to consider is what you want the goats for – there are different goats for different purposes. Besides the well-known dairy breeds we also have meat and fibre goats in Britain.

Dairy goats

There is nothing more delicious than home-produced fresh milk – no pasteurisation, no plastic taste, just cool creamy freshness. However, before you buy your first milking goats, it pays to do a bit of background research. Questions to answer should be: “How much milk do I need for the family, for home cheesemaking or maybe a dairy business?” The modern UK dairy breeds have evolved from cross-breeding with and subsequently upgrading the indigenous Old English goats with either imported Swiss breeds (like the Saanen and Toggenburgs) or the Nubian type goats that were brought into the country on ships from Northern Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The different dairy goat breeds do have breed specific characteristics which the prospective buyer should take into consideration. Anglo-Nubian goats are large animals and often quite vocal but they produce milk with persistently high butterfats – an important consideration for a budding cheesemaker. However, the amount of milk they give is often less than can be achieved with the Swiss type breeds (British Saanens and Toggenburgs, as well as their original parent breeds the pure Saanens and Toggenburgs). The British Saanen is often called the ‘Friesian’ of the goat world – she is an all-white, placid breed well known for giving in excess of a gallon of milk per day, and two gallons are not unheard of. British Toggenburg goats are possibly somewhat less laid back, but good and steady milkers. Pure Saanens and Toggenburgs are now becoming quite rare, with the consequent difficulty in obtaining unrelated males for mating within reasonable distance. The British Alpine breed is a rangy, smart looking black goat with striking white markings. She can be a challenging breed for the beginner, but is a consistent milker with good butterfats. The Golden Guernsey – a rare breed classified as minority with the RBST and originating from the Channel Island of Guernsey – is a smaller fine-boned animal. She is the ideal for a family wanting fresh milk for the house but not wishing to make significant quantities of cheese. The stock of many commercial dairy herds consists of a mix of British Saanen and Toggenburg type goats as well as Anglo Nubians – combining quantity with high butterfats. Cross-breeding is common in dairy goats, and if all you need is a quality milker – look no further than a goat registered in the ‘British’ Section (HB) of the BGS Herd Book.

Meat goats

Boer goats – the only breed of goat recognised exclusively for meat production – has evolved slowly over at least the last 200 years in Southern Africa, with more focused efforts in the last 60 or so years. The UK stock today is the result of various imports. The main aim of many breeders is to produce pure Boer goats. These chunky goats are characterised by their short coated white body with brown markings around the shoulders and head. Boers are kept more extensively than dairy herds, kids are reared on their dams and breeders aim to produce kids of around 40kgs at about seven months. They are usually also kept horned – with a more placid temperament than the dairy breeds horns apparently do not cause too many management problems.

But can you have dual-purpose goats – for milk and meat? More and more dairy goatkeepers are now rearing their surplus male kids for meat – an ethical solution to an age-old dilemma for any dairy animal breeder. Although not necessarily providing the same carcass quality as required by butchers, Anglo-Nubian, British Toggenburg and Saanen kids slaughtered at around 10 months old kill out easily at 25kgs, with a live weight of over 50kgs. The meat itself is as lean as the pure Boer goat meat.

Another option is to use a Boer billy on your dairy females in years when you do not want to increase the number of milkers in your herd, but need to kid the nannies to increase milk production again. All offspring would be suitable for meat rearing. Keeping any females from such a mating for future dairy use would however increase the risk of teat deformities, such as fishtail and/or double teats, as these are common in Boer goats and are allowed in the breed standard. Fishtail teats in particular make hand-milking a goat almost impossible.

Fibre goats

In Britain, keeping fibre goats is quite a niche area. Both Angora and Cashmere goats have been imported into the country in the 1980s, and small herds are kept in many parts of the country. Having originally been bred in Asia Minor and then in a few countries with a relatively dry climate, Angora goats are not well suited to outdoor living in the wetter parts of the UK. The lack of lanolin in the fleece (as indeed is the case for all goats) means that a shelter from the rain has to be accessible at all times. Their fleece grows nearly an inch per month, therefore Angora goats have to be shorn twice per year. Their feet are also not necessarily that tolerant of the often dominant wet ground conditions in grazing fields. Angora goats produce Mohair. Most breeders will send their fleeces off to be processed in South Africa through the British Mohair Marketing Board, although there is a small market in selling to handspinners. Angora goats are also usually kept horned and with their small stature do not really make large enough carcasses to allow commercial rearing for meat.

In conclusion – you can have goats for dairy, meat and fibre on your holding! If you do not have a large enough field for grazing sheep, goats can be a brilliant alternative. If you can provide enough browsings for them during the summer months, they will be very happy in small field and yard. Go on, go and get your goat(s) – always at least couple of course!

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